Our Worst Angels: Inconvenient Psychological Truths, Part 2

The pull and peril of blind loyalty

Posted Aug 30, 2017

Marveling at his supporters’ enthusiasm during his election campaign, Donald Trump once proclaimed, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."

Trump’s assertion acknowledged a curious feature of the human psyche: the phenomenon of blind loyalty. Indeed, among other things, the Trump presidency appears to constitute a natural experiment in the limits (or lack thereof) of blind loyalty. The question, ‘what would he have to do to lose his core supporters?’ is being tested in real time, right in front of us.

Thought experiment: Would you want supporters who would back you even if you murdered someone? This is a tricky question to answer, because on some level we all crave unconditional support. Infinite, blind loyalty makes us feel safe (I will not be deserted) and powerful (my people will do anything for me). We know too that blindly loyal armies can exert real power in the world, as those who lack doubt, restraint, or reflection can charge as one, fast, and with full force.

We also know the allure of being totally faithful and obedient ourselves, the relief of shedding the burden of responsibility and the chronic pain of doubt. As the notorious Nazi murderer Adolf Eichmann put it, “Now that I look back, I realize that a life predicated on being obedient is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one's own need to think.”

On the other hand, we also understand that blind obedience, blind loyalty, blind love—in other words, blind anything—can be problematic, harmful, and destructive (see under: Adolf Eichmann). It is no coincidence that bad guys in movies are often either robotic, blind followers or leaders demanding blind obedience.

Most of us realize that if we are surrounded by ‘yes people,’ surely with time we will stagnate and lose touch with reality. We realize too that placing loyalty above other considerations, such as moral conduct, creates problems. (Should we treat a favorite athlete with the same admiration after we find out they have cheated?) We know that groups of blindly loyal people often turn quickly from a lively audience to a rowdy crowd and then into a destructive mob. So we are inherently ambivalent about blind loyalty, craving it and understanding its power, while also seeing it as as a kind of deficiency—and a frightening one at that.

This ambivalence underscores a counter-intuitive psychological fact: Most of us believe that we are reasonable individuals, attuned to the world around us, good at adapting to changing circumstance, and open to being persuaded by strong evidence. We believe we like to think for ourselves, learn from experience, and seek the truth. Alas in reality our beliefs and decisions often owe more to habit, social influence, and emotion than to reason, evidence, experience, or truth-value. Thus we routinely fail to change our positions in the face of contradictory evidence; we resist owning up to our mistakes so as not to lose face; and we follow our leaders into oblivion so as not to break ranks.

Several elements of our internal architecture are in play here.

First is our inherent conformity. Because we only survive and thrive in well-organized, coherent groups, our social nature privileges group acceptance and cohesion over abstract truth, pure reason, or personal fulfillment. If my choices are to be, 1) factually correct but make me an outcast from my group, or 2) accepted and esteemed by my group at the price of spouting or believing lies, I would be wise to take option 2 over option 1. After all, we don’t live alone, and we don’t live in the abstract. Rather, we live interdependently with others in a concrete social setting.  The consequences of alienating our allies and kin are often far worse—more dangerous and more immediate—than the consequences of failing to embrace, admit, or change to accommodate some natural fact, abstract truth, or personal whim.

That’s why every group looks down on whistleblowers and snitches, even though both are essentially truth-tellers. That’s why we lionize and celebrate fallen soldiers as heroes, even if they were lured by lying, incompetent leaders into an ill-conceived and mismanaged (lost) cause. We prize loyalty over truth, because group loyalty means group strength. And group strength means personal safety and survival. You are safe only to the extent that the group you belong to is strong.

A second, related consideration is obedience to authority. Our brain organizes concepts hierarchically—small to large, trivial to important, weak to strong, slow to fast, etc.—and the way we organize our societies mimics that internal structure. We also grow up in a hierarchical structure (the family), and so by both nature and nurture we are prone to expect, accept, and follow authority. It is difficult for us to even imagine a life system that is not hierarchical. That’s why all mythology imagines a king (or God) who rules over a people, not all the people ruling over themselves. That’s why every story has a hero who’s smarter, or stronger, or more courageous than the non-heroes. All this means that we are predisposed to figure out the hierarchy and behave in accordance with our place in it, which often entails obeying those above us.

Another mechanism at play is change-resistance. While we talk a lot about the inevitability of change, the benefits and the excitement of it, but the truth is that we are by nature resistant to change. This is because systems that change very easily are unstable and unpredictable—that is, chaotic. Human beings can’t thrive in chaos. Our internal cognitive and perceptual architectures are designed to find and create order, meaning, and predictability in the world, so we can successfully navigate it and manage our fear of it. That’s why we see a face on the moon. That’s why we mark time and space, why every culture develops rituals, traditions, societal norms, behavioral scripts; why we have clocks and calendars and schedules and fixed habits and daily routines and a monthly check; why the gods we invent always possess power and knowledge, the very qualities we feel we lack most when we contemplate the big picture of existence.

Thought experiment: If you hear of a person who used to be a Democrat, then became a Republican, then a Democrat again, would you view this person more or less favorably than a lifelong Democrat? Would you see this person as open-minded and flexible or unstable and shallow? My guess is the latter. We suspect those who have shifting alliances, because they are difficult to predict, and hence to know, and hence to control, and hence to rely on.

This basic tendency to maintain stability and coherence is supported by one of the fundamental features of our cognitive architecture: confirmation bias. Once we settle on a take, we don’t like to revise it. We are likely to select, tune into, believe, and follow only the information that confirms our existing beliefs. In other words, contrary to the old idiom, seeing is not believing so much as believing is seeing. Those who believe immigrants are bad see bad immigrants everywhere.

Our confirmation bias often works in tandem with a related phenomenon called belief perseverance bias. This refers to the human tendency to resist change in the face of evidence. While your confirmation bias prevents you from seeking, noticing, or registering disagreeable data, belief perseverance actively pushes such data away once you’re confronted with it. If your friend brings you evidence that your husband is cheating, you may accuse her of being jealous of your great marriage (hence Booker Brown’s ‘love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t’).

Such belief perseverance is appealing in part because a shift of conviction requires effort and energy. In other words, it’s hard work, and who wants that? Another reason is that taking a new stance may cast doubt on our previous stance. If B is true, how come you believed A all these years? And if you could believe A all these years, what does it say about your smarts and decision-making? After all, you were wrong about A, so why should we trust that you’re not also wrong about other things?

When new information collides with our old settled ways, we may also face what is known in psychology as cognitive dissonance, a mechanism proposed by Leon Festinger’s research in the '50s. Festinger contended that we like our attitudes and actions to be in harmony. When they are not, we experience dissonance, or tension, which we are then motivated to resolve in one of two ways: change our behavior or change our attitude. Thus, if I’m a smoker and I learn that smoking is bad for my health, I will either try to quit smoking or try to discredit the science (which is often easier in the short term. See under: Climate change).

A related effect that may work to compel our destructive march toward oblivion is the Sunk Cost effect (a.k.a, ‘white elephant’). This principle refers to the difficulty we have walking away from a big, losing investment. The more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon, particularly if what you’ve invested cannot be recovered. People may opt to remain in a bad marriage not because they want to, but because it’s hard to walk away from something in which you have invested so much time, which is perhaps the ultimate unrecoverable cost. It’s hard to abandon a construction project (or, say, a war) in which you already invested a large and unrecoverable sum of money, or political capital for that matter. If you walk away, you stand to lose whatever you’ve invested. You also lose face (if this was a bad deal, how come you did not see it earlier?). We are by nature loss averse, and nobody likes to feel, or look, stupid.

The famed scientist and all around maven Richard Feynman famously advised, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Indeed, human beings are masters of self-deception. We deceive ourselves for two main reasons: to maintain our social standing and identity (so as to belong), and to maintain our sense of self-coherence and esteem (so as to be). We are heavily invested in those beliefs, values, habits and principles that define our group and individual identities. And this investment will often compel us to continue on a path that is evidently misguided just to avoid experiencing the social shame and ego-injury of time and face lost.

Knowing all this, here’s a final thought experiment: if they wake up to the news that Trump has shot a man in the middle of Fifth Avenue, what would his core followers do?

Option 1: They would call the report ‘fake news.’ They’d claim Trump felt threatened by the victim (he had a beard; could have been a Muslim terrorist!) and acted in self-defense; or they would unearth suspicious details from the victim’s life (he travelled to Cancun, Mexico many times!) to show he was not quite perfectly innocent, and perhaps deserved his fate; or they’d note that Trump is so rich and successful that he practically owns Fifth Avenue, so the victim was in effect a trespasser on the property; or they’d hail Trump for being such a great shot and not hitting any innocent bystanders, and applaud wildly when during a subsequent rally in Arizona, Trump says: “I told you during the campaign I was a straight shooter!” or they would hail Trump as a ‘real man’ who took a tough ‘law and order’ stand against the sissy soft-willed political correctness culture of those latte-sipping coastal progressives, in defense of traditional American values of ‘stand your ground’ and our Second Amendment rights; or they would reason that sacrificing one man for the greater good of showing our enemies around the world that our president is a badass not to be messed with is worth it, strategically, and in fact quite brilliant; or they would claim that nobody’s perfect, but that one mistake does not define a great man; or that the relentless witch hunt pressure from the vicious, partisan, failing mainstream media drove him to it; or that killing one man is less of an offense than losing 30,000 emails and the four dead in Benghazi. ‘Shoot them up’ would replace ‘lock her up’ in his rallies, and his popularity among the base would soar, because our guy is under siege from the corrupt alt-left establishment.

Option 2: They would say: “Lock him up.”

Which would it be?